Mission and Worship – America and the Orthodox


The following post is an expanded version of a comment I wrote in a recent thread. The question to which it responds is the Scriptural mandate of St. Paul (1 Cor. 9:19-23):

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law — though not being myself under the law — that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law — not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ — that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

 To what extent should the Church be “enculturated” in its presentation of the Gospel? The question grew out of a discussion occasioned by observations on the development of “niche Churches or services” in which a specific market niche (of music) is used to target a particular segment of our culture. The answer I wrote, I feel, bears wider reading than is generally found in the comments section of the blog, and worthy of wider conversation. I have also edited and expanded it.

Orthodox mission historically has always sought to “enculturate” the gospel – whether in antiquity or in modern times. The Russian mission to Alaska in the 1700’s and early 1800’s immediately developed native alphabets, translated texts and trained and ordained native clergy. In antiquity the Orthodox held steadfastly to this rule and developed an alphabet for the Slavic languages and missionized Eastern Europe and Russia. Today it is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa in a very successful mission under the direction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria. This enculturation is, for the Orthodox, a matter of dogma. It is the Incarnation in practice in the life of the Church.

The American experience (as well as Western Europe to some extent and Australia) is slightly different. Here, much of the Orthodox population did not arrive as missionaries but as economically oppressed peoples who then went to work in mines and factories. They were not trained as missionaries. For them, the Church came first to provide pastoral care for a “diaspora.” Thus there remains an “ethnic” portion of Orthodoxy in America who have, to some extent, maintained ties with their native cultures. When converts or those interested in Orthodoxy first encounter the Church in such ethnic settings – it is easy to conclude that the Orthodox are not interested in mission or that St. Paul’s mandate is being ignored. Sometimes such parishes are the only Orthodox option within an entire city or even larger area. But this is only one aspect of Orthodoxy and one occasioned by unique historical factors. That it will eventually cease and take on a more normative form is simply a given. Time, language and shifting circumstances will bring about a change regardless of other events.

 There is also a strong Orthodox mission component in America very sensitive to the mandate of St. Paul. But in thinking of culture and enculturation, we should not confuse American culture with the music, etc., being marketed by mass media to various niche groups. My teenage daughter recently gave my wife and I an education in the various groups that constitute her high school including the fashions that mark them and what music they listen to. She is very ecclectic and had with her samples of almost every group. It turned a Thanksgiving trip into an Anthropology class in American Teen, 101.

What we heard is not folk culture – it is not even necessarily American culture – it is mass culture – produced and marketed to people’s passions to exploit in many cases the very lowest elements of their nature. It provides a manufactured identity which is naturally sought by teenage insecurity. But, as such, it should not be confused with culture.

Much American music (by no means all) is to music what pornography is to art. St. Paul did not adopt the pornographic culture of Corinth for the purposes of the Church but rebuked it. The Orthodox Church is speaking English (increasingly) and has already become American (if there are Orthodox who think the Church is not enough American yet, go overseas and you’ll see just how American we are already). The Orthodox are engaging the main issues of this culture as clearly as anyone if not more clearly than most.

No one says that mainline Episcopalians are not American, but they have a recent history of funding abortion, and endorsing the revisionism of Hollywood culture. Such practices present only a distortion of the gospel, wrapping liberal American rhetoric in theological jargon. Thus arguments in favor of women’s ordination, regardless of Scriptures cited, are inevitably rooted in American Constitutional thought and not theology.

Orthodoxy speaks English and says clearly that abortion is wrong and destructive to both mother and child. It speaks to our consumerist economy and says that consumerism has no place in the spiritual life of the Church. Rather it is destructive of the human spirit. Worshipping God primarily in a manner that you find pleasing isn’t spiritual, it’s just more consumer nonsense. The Scriptures tell us not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1).

Of course the Church has to be able to speak to a culture. My Orthodox parish is full of converts (possibly as much as 85% of the congregation). It ranges from those with a high school diploma only to PhD physicists – from every background – atheist, wiccan, protestant, catholic, evangelical, you name it. We have probably 8 or more nationalities (out of 150 people). They have not had to embrace a culture foreign to America in order to be Orthodox, but have to embrace God who will transform this and every culture that it might become the Kingdom of God. 

Ascribing to the notion that we have to cater to the market whims of American music in order to reach people is simply not true. Such ideas are destroying the very evangelical movement that gave them birth. Finney (one of the fathers of modern evangelicalism) was wrong about a number of things – but the modern translation of his evangelical mandate into the culture morphing of the “niche” Churches is perhaps the worst use ever made of his ideas. “Praise” is used as a very large metaphor to cover much that is simply an indulgence of the flesh.

I have spent plenty of time with youth of both highschool and college years, who have been nurtured in Orthodox life. They’re not anti-music, etc. (indeed I like a lot of contemporary music and appreciate my children sharing it with me), but these same youth know what it is to worship God and when it is time to lay aside “all earthly cares” and offer God praise that is worthy (if any praise can be worthy) and in a spirit that is yielded to God and not something else. Presenting the Gospel to youth in America very much means to draw them beyond the boundaries of their own “niche” and into the glorious liberty of the sons of God.

I agree that we have to minister to a culture, but I do not think that each age group’s niche music is the same thing as culture – nor many other facets of American life. Having drive-through communion, for instance, (which is done in some few Protestant places), certainly incorporates an element of American culture – but it borders on blasphemy. Where do you draw the line when it comes to enculturation? I draw the line at accepting the received Tradition of the Church and translating that into our culture. This, of course, is a difficulty with Evangelicalism in which the Tradition of the Church has been rejected in favor of modernist assemblies.

If the Tradition of the Church is followed it will certainly mean that worship will be liturgical (which is not foreign to American culture) and according to the form given us from the Fathers, though it will be in English and in music that is accessible to Americans (thus far, the range of music within Orthodoxy has been sufficient for American evangelism, though we continue to write more). But our lives will be focused on the Gospel, and the Traditions of prayer, fasting and almsgiving as given to us by the Fathers (Orthodoxy and Orthodopraxis). This is the saving work given to the Church.

American pop culture (the “culture” produced by the entertainment industry) is one of our major exports. It exists not as culture but as an economic activity (all they want is your money). When the Church marries itself to one of these “cultural” forms and offers it as worship it inevitably becomes a missionary tool of the American economic enterprise. Thus we have the strange phenomenon of American “rock and roll” Churches in Russia being established to compete with the native Orthodox Church. I have no doubt that such strategies are successful – but successful at what? Attendance numbers are no measure of the spiritual life. American Protestants are surprised when Orthodox in these countries resist their presence and see them simply as “foreign agents.” Culturally they are.

St. Paul’s rule in 1 Corinthians 9 is what the Orthodox describe as “economy.” Under the economy of salvation, I may stretch the limits of the canonical life (the regular life of the Church) in order to bring salvation to others. One of my favorite examples of such economy is found in the original Orthodox Alaska mission.

Missionaries there found a tribe of Native Alaskans who lived exclusively on cariboo. There were no vegetables in their diet – only cariboo. The first conundrum arose with the question of fasting. It is traditional for Orthodox to fast from meat, fish, wine, dairy and olive oil during a fast period (such as Great Lent). What to tell these native Alaskans? The missionaries wrote back to the Bishop who responded: “During the fast, tell them to eat less cariboo.” A perfect Orthodox solution.

Orthodox worship represents 2,000 years of Christian practice. It not only embodies the Gospel and our worship of God, but also teaches, in an embodied form, important aspects of the spiritual life. Learning sobriety, humility, the reality of the communion of saints, the capacity for awe and the ascesis of prayer (prayer is work – and hard work at that), are all very deep parts of Orthodox worship. Their loss in much of Western worship (particularly in the liturgical reforms of the last 50 years) have guaranteed a weakening of Christian spirituality at a time when it is needed more than ever.

If our culture is ever to wake up from its enthrallment to Mammon and enter seriously into the life God has prepared for us – I can see no vehicle other than Orthodoxy that is prepared to teach such an awakening in an embodied form. I have no idea what the future holds for our culture or for world culture. God alone knows that. But I do know that whatever the future holds, knowing God deeply and learning the practices proper to the Christian life will be more essential rather than less. “Dumbing down” our schools is not working for education – spiritually “dumbing down” Christianity cannot be good for us either. We do not need less – we need more – we need the fullness. Why ask for less? To read more on this last question see my article: How much is too little? How much is enough?

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


54 responses to “Mission and Worship – America and the Orthodox”

  1. Trevor Avatar

    “if there are Orthodox who think the Church is not enough American yet, go overseas and you’ll see just how American we are already”

    For those of us who have no immediate opportunity to go overseas (and with the decline of the dollar will have even less opportunity in the future), could you enumerate some examples? Surely you have more in mind than the presence or absence of pews?

  2. […] Original post by fatherstephen […]

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    It will vary, of course, by jurisdiction. But American practice in liturgical matters tends to be quite American. For one, there is more variety simply because here there is a fairly constant contact between otherwise more isolated usages (thus you’ll see influences from Greek, Russian, Carpatho-Russian, Antiochian, Romanian, etc.) meeting each other and being blended in places that yields something that is distinctive in itself. Americans tend to behave like Americans in worship rather than like Russians (to use one example). We preach like Americans, our mix of musical forms tends to be more varied, etc. We can’t help but be American and it has its effects on worship, even if they are mostly subtle.

    I don’t think America will have a radical effect on Orthodoxy (it wouldn’t be Orthodox to have a radical effect) but Orthodoxy is already taking on distinctive American flavors – mostly small stuff noticed first, probably, by priests, but it is there and will continue.

  4. Ole Rocker Avatar
    Ole Rocker

    After reading this and the earlier posts you made with the many comments I have concluded that music has always had a strong “draw” for me in worship. I am sure it is the way God made me and used it to draw me to Him. I have always found good in all worship music and actively participated in it, but there always was a nagging sense of incompletion with it. Until one day …

    I’ll never forget the introduction to Orthodox liturgical music by a friend in a Presbyterian church choir I was a part of – he discretely handed me a tape of St. Vlads choir of the liturgical music and encouraged me to listen to it as soon as I could. We were in the midst of practicing Handel’s Messiah – probably the epitome of Protestant made music.

    I slipped on a pair of Koss headsets when I got home that evening and put the tape on. I was instantly transported into heaven – paradise consumed me. Where has this music been all my life? Handel’s Messiah, Bach, even Percy Faith’s Christmas music of my youth (Jesu Bambino, the climax of his interpretations) – these pieces had always transported me, but not anywhere like this liturgical music! Everything was sung, was chanted. I had listened to Gregorian chant earlier and liked it okay but it didn’t have that “grab” that this has. I wept. I remained on my knees or prostrate the whole hour of that wonderful time of ecstasy.

    That was 10 years ago and I have lost count how many times I have listened to that tape and later CD of that same music of the 1978 recording. About two years ago I stumbled across it at a used record store! It was like the merchant and the Pearl of great price. What a treasure to find – on vinyl!

    Having said all this, most importantly I discovered all of Orthodoxy through my music quest. May we pray that others will find it through there own quest – whatever drive the good Lord puts into a person. For once they find the fullness of that drive, they will find the fullness of Christ, the fullness of heaven and paradise will indeed consume them ….

  5. JS Bangs Avatar

    The most obvious Americanism that I’ve seen is “passing the peace”. The Antiochian Orthodox parish in my area does this after the Gospel reading, though I know that not all jurisdictions have this custom. In any case, such a thing never happens in Romania, and I doubt that it happens in the Middle East.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is, of course, an ancient practice. Priests still exchange the peace with each other (and deacons with deacons) inside the altar just before the Creed. I understand that Antioch instituted the practice in recent years (the people exchanging the peace). I do not know if they do it in the Old Country (Syria, etc) or not.

  7. MuleChewingBriars Avatar

    Father – I think you congealed everything you wanted to say about Orthodoxy, Christianity, and America in your post where you talked about knowing God. You said that a “Jesus freak” once asked you ‘Do you know Jesus?’, and you said that this a question you could spend the rest of your life answering.

    One thing I appreciate above everything else about the American “born-agains” is their emphasis on the personal-ness of knowing Jesus. I came to Orthodoxy not because I couldn’t know Jesus apart from Orthodoxy. I did. But Orthodoxy is His family, His context.. I can’t imagine getting to know someone without knowing his family. That would be like learning facts about someone, which, to be painfully honest, is what my 35 years in American evangelicalism was like. “My ears have heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.”

  8. Richard Barrett Avatar

    In terms of music, it seems to me that the closest thing we have to a genuine folk singing tradition that would be “baptizable” for use in Orthodox liturgical singing is Appalachian and shapenote/sacred harp singing.

    Still, there’s an inherent problem in our musical culture that makes this difficult–our musical culture is by and large based, not on music-making, but on music-hearing. To put it another way, as instructive as it might be to listen to a Jean Ritchie recording, it’s still basing an experience of a song on a particular performance of a particular person in a particular time and place, rather than learning to sing the song by singing it with somebody who learned to sing it by singing it with somebody else. In other words, our American folk singing tradition is largely objectified the way most of us experience it now, rather than being a living tradition. Which isn’t to say there’s nothing useful there; let’s just not kid ourselves that we’re not having to make do with something somewhat synthetic.


  9. David Avatar

    Do you think any Protestant hymns are worthy of inclusion in Orthodoxy liturgy? Or can the Church only offer the ear “local” musical notes to the words set down so long ago?

  10. Richard Barrett Avatar

    Interesting question. “Let all mortal flesh keep silence” is, as it happens, the Cherubic Hymn from the Divine Liturgy of St. James (and also used for the Liturgy of Holy Saturday); every time a Protestant sings it at Christmas, they’re actually singing an Orthodox text.

    Still, the very way the question is worded suggests that there’s a misunderstanding of how the cycle of liturgical texts work. It’s not a matter of what’s worthy and what’s not. The hymns that vary (known in the Western church as “propers” and that’s not, shall we say, an improper word for Eastern use) are assigned based on where we’re at in the various cycles of liturgical time; the hymns that don’t change (the “ordinary”)–well, don’t change. Each has a particular liturgical function as well–there’s not really a place in the Liturgy itself for just doing something to do it. (That said, the Antiochian archdiocese has the blessing to sing Western Christmas carols in church once the Liturgy is over and the dismissal has been given.) “Amazing Grace” isn’t included in a Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, not for reasons having to do with worthiness per se, but because there’s nothing in the rubrics that would assign to it any liturgical function.

    Which is in and of itself a good general point: function and quality are two different questions. In this case, the musical/textual worthiness of this or that Protestant hymn is a totally separate matter from whether or not it has an Orthodox liturgical function.


  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is a large variety of Orthodox music, actually. The Obikhod tones (Russian) are not all that old, and are a very singable set of tunes in 4 part harmony, very akin, I would say, to “Anglican Chant” (which is a beautiful British tradition).

    Carpatho-Russian hymns are very polyphonic and “folk” in their origin and quite accessible to the Western ear. Needless to say, the music by Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Bortniansky, etc., is very accessible in that some of it is quite Western, though much of their music is not suitable for a normal parish choir or congregation.

    It interests me how quickly my children picked up the modified Byzantine tones of the Antiochians (from going to summer camp at Antiochian village). Not just my kids, but other youth in the parish. They really like it and bug me asking for more of it in our OCA parish. One of my daughters (married) directs the choir in her husband’s (priest) Antiochian parish.

    Compared to 15 years ago, when the convert parishes of Antioch tended to be resistant to Byzantine chant, most have now taken it to themselves and are carrying it forward with great success. Things like Ancient Faith Radio testify to the great popularity of Orthodox music (of many styles) among Orthodox Americans, and others.

    Music will continue to be written (there are several notable American Orthodox hymn writers, including several Bishops, and some professional musicians). I do not know that we will see an introduction of any different tone systems any time soon or that we need to.

    The liturgy has been translated into Welsh (in Wales). Their great tradition of congregational singing might be the best bet to hear a British native Orthodox music in the near future.

    For myself, I have become very satisfied with Orthodox music – and far more than satisfied in many cases. I have my favorites. And Pascha would never be sufficient to me with anything less than the full services of Holy Week and Pascha itself – with all of their music.

    The nations that are largely Orthodox have Church music and “folk” music though the two are often quite different.

    America, you are correct, is largely a listening world rather than a singing world. Just as most of America can’t dance. In terms of culture – compared to most native cultures – America has largely been stripped of all natural culture, replaced by marketable and consumable products. There’s something wrong with a nation where people don’t sing and dance.

    I have been to a number of Orthodox wedding receptions that were more fun than anything I’ve ever known, precisely because there was enough “foreign” culture to produce very natural singing and dancing. Watching my 80 year-old mother dance the Dubke (an Arab folk dance) at my daughter’s wedding. The music and the dancing was just that infectious. I am here describing a woman who grew up country Baptist in South Carolina who was chrismated at age 79. If she can dance with the Arab Orthodox, all things are possible.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Pesonally, I think the American music that most closely resembles Orthodox Liturgical music is jazz. Not all form of jazz to be sure, but some forms of it. Richard and Fr. Stephen raise a good point, however, until we learn to sing and dance, it will all be synthetic.

  13. David Avatar

    Richard, that’s a good note about function. But clearly the Orthodox continue to write hymns and in many different styles appropriate to the culture of their parishes. I guess I should rephrase the question, could any Protestant hymns you know of function in an Orthodox service?

    I think I understand Fr Stephen’s comments about “mass culture” and real “culture”. Wouldn’t Fanny Crosby sit somewhere in the middle? I’ve been exposed to Sacred Heart shape notes and love them dearly (though living in California I can only sing this music with anachronistic enthusiasts and not in service where they belong) and would love to see if such music could fulfill an appropriate function.

    But see, now we are talking about what I’d like instead of what the Church is. This is still my great temptation. I feel a bit childish. Like I’m a kid constantly pushing my parents limits, forcing them to define boundaries for me.

    You can see such a child as either being rebellious (trying to see what they can get away with, and how to get what they want) or you can see them as genuinely wanted to please their parents but not yet knowing how do to difficulty in understanding adult things as a child.

    I hope to be the later, at least someday.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    An interesting story for those interested in this topic:

    Terry Mattingly, the religion writer and columnist, who is one of the writers at Getreligion.org, is also my Orthodox godson. He was Episcopalian when we first met, as was I. He did some stories on me when I was involved in some national level Anglican dust-ups. In the course of things we became good friends. As I began approaching Orthodoxy, Terry and his family were wrestling with similar questions. One of his considered options was the “Charistmatic Episcopal Church.” We had some discussions – lengthy.

    One Sunday he and his family were visiting and Terry and I went for a long afternoon walk at the nearby Arboretum. He and I both have a tendency to talk too loud – so the Arboretum was an excellent place for a conversation.

    Eventually, all discussion of Church came down to music. I recall that Terry was momentarily convinced that evangelism would not work unless contemporary music was involved. I recall that eventually the conversation became quite lively so that I finally realized that here were two grown men, in the woods, shouting at each other about the nature of worship, music and tradition. We finally had a good laugh at ourselves.

    The question was obviously resolved. We are both Orthodox and he continues to do his excellent work. If you ever have a chance to attend a workshop by him, don’t miss it. If you are a priest and would like to have a great workshop on Christianity and contemporary culture, I can think of no one better (I hope he still does them). Getreligion.org is on my blogroll. If you’re not a regular reader, you’re missing some of the best religious writing on the net.

    Fortunately for both of us, blogs can’t shout.

  15. Richard Barrett Avatar

    I’ll throw in that even under the umbrella of “Byzantine chant,” you’ve got differences; how the Greeks do it is a little different from how the Arabs do it, which is still a little different from how the Romanians do it, and then how the Americans are learning to do it. (Or how different Americans are learning to do it–contrast Protopsaltis John Boyer with Deacon Apostolos Hill with the Boston Byzantine Choir.)

    Jazz–maybe. I can see lines of comparison between the Byzantine papadic tones and some forms of jazz, sure. Jazz (as well as genuine folk singing) seems to be more comfortable with the existence of modes beyond major and minor. Interesting thought.

    David–let’s define a little more clearly what we mean when we talk about “writing hymns.” There’s a melody or hymn tune, there’s the arrangement of that melody, and then there’s the hymn text. When you say that the Orthodox “continue to write hymns and in many different styles appropriate to the culture of their parishes,” that’s true in the sense that musical styles are adapted for the existing texts. For example–Russia was evangelized, musically, with what more than likely was Byzantine chant sung in Slavonic. In other words, Byzantine music (melody and arrangement), Slavonic text (but translations of the texts that already existed).

    Over time this was influenced by indigenous forms of singing, and then eventually their exposure to Western European culture led them to compose new settings using what they had learned from their Western teachers. But all of this just has to do with melody and arrangement, not texts.

    New texts have been composed, yes, but for specific purposes–hymns to commemorate new saints, for example. This has to do with what the function of the text is; rather than me trying to (poorly) explain it, you might take a look at http://www.anastasis.org.uk/, which is a wealth of English-language texts, and/or http://www.orthodox-islington.org.uk/liturgy_commentary.htm. Fr. Ephraim Lash is somebody who definitely knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the matter of Orthodox liturgical texts.

    So, to answer your rephrased question–sure, depending on the text. There’s a lot of psalm singing in Orthodox services; I could see some of the shapenote settings of psalm texts being used. “Let all mortal flesh keep silence” is, as noted, a hymn that has its origin in an Orthodox service. Something like “Onward, Christian soldiers” seems unlikely, however. I could look through my old Episcopal hymnal and try to find specific examples of other things that have texts that would be appropriate from an Orthodox point of view. On the other hand, if your question is, could a Protestant hymn arrangement be used for an Orthodox liturgical text–it’s been done, certainly.

    Just so you know, I’m a former high-church Episcopalian who loved him some “Lift high the Cross!” and string quartets on Easter, so believe me, I understand at least part of where you’re coming from. I don’t particularly mourn not singing those in a Divine Liturgy, because there’s no reason I can’t pull the hymnal off my shelf and sing them whenever I want to, but it is certainly an adjustment.


  16. jacob Avatar

    Summary and Review of How Shall We Worship? Biblical Guidelines for the Worship Wars by Marva J. Dawn.

    “Few authors are as aware of the liturgical problems facing Lutheranism and Protestantism in general as Marva J. Dawn. Raised in a family involved deeply in the Lutheran musical tradition, she has written numerous books on worship, liturgy, and music. In How Shall We Worship, she gives a succinct analysis of the issues in the “worship wars” and points to a direction that centers on the Triune God rather than the congregants.”

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    Another note of interest in the discussion:

    At my parish, it has been a custom following the end of the Vigil on Christmas Eve (Compline and Matins) to gather around the icon of the Nativity and sing carols from different lands. I still get misty eyed when we sing Silent Night in Japanese (actually our Japanese member sings it why the rest of us hum). It’s not a practice that is “in the book,” but a pastoral decision in a mission setting in which we were trying to help a Church full of new converts in their first Orthodox Christmas. We continue to do it each year.

    We also go to nursing homes and sing carols (with some Orthodox hymns as well). I check out our carols for proper theology and we don’t sing the more or less “secular” carols (We wish you a merry Christmas, etc.) in the Church. And we do them all a capella.

    It’s funny, too, being a convert. We have never had a “Christmas pageant,” a staple in my former Anglican life. I was afraid that if I even suggested it someone would accuse me of backsliding or something.

    Then I come to find out that such pageants are common in Russian Churches (maybe elsewhere). They are occasionally referred to as a Yolka, although a Yolka can just be a Christmas party.

    We may have a “Yolka” some year in the near future and help bring more common culture into our parish life.

    The hardest thing for many of my Russian members is the New Calendar. One of them said to me, “It just feels strange to have Christmas before New Year” (Russian Old Calendar Christmas is January 7, but the state calendar is the same as ours, thus New Year’s secular observance fell before the Church’s Christmas.)

  18. Terry Mitchell Avatar
    Terry Mitchell

    Father Stephen – it is my great hope and prayer that this emphasis on enculturation will at some point include my African American brothers and sisters who are currently ‘starving to death’ in a church world consisting of so much heterodoxy. If Orthodoxy is taking hold well in Africa, then why not here among my people. ‘Church’ in my world has such a different meaning than that in the Orthodox world and sometimes I feel like those who called out to St. Paul for help:
    Acts 16:9 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

    The fields really are white and the harvest is truly plentiful – and we do need help. And as Hosea says: My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Visiting a European-based Orthodox church can be a traumatic experience for the average African American worshipper as the atmosphere is anything but welcoming.

  19. Margaret Avatar

    I agree with all of this and especially appreciate this, “Presenting the Gospel to youth in America very much means to draw them beyond the boundaries of their own “niche” and into the glorious liberty of the sons of God.”
    Living with a teenager, I find this article so reassuring. Thank you for posting this!

  20. fatherstephen Avatar


    This is a matter of great concern to the Orthodox. There are but a few African Americans among Orthodox clergy but all are outstanding. Earlier this year there was a special outreach in Newark NJ focusing on African Americans and Orthodoxy that I understand was met with success. Another, I believe has been held in the Detroit area. Fr. Moses Berry, in the St. Louis area has done some very creative things as well as several others working with him.

    What I can say is that while there were virtually no African American Orthodox a little over a generation ago, that is changing, though much more needs to be done. A recognition by some within the African American community that this is indeed the African Church is certainly helpful. It would depend on which parish one visited as to what welcome they would find. In my own parish everyone is most welcome and greeted with information readily available on worship, and on the Orthodox faith, though we are working on doing a yet better job.

    One of my most interesting experiences in Orthodoxy was visiting in the OCA parish in Las Vegas. About half the congregation seems to be Russian, and about one third is Ethiopian/Erutrean with a minority of others mixed in. The morning I was there a young Ethiopian child was Baptized so the community was there in strength. A very joyous occasion.

    St. John the Wonderworker in Atlanta, GA, has a number of African American members, including an excellent young sub-deacon (unless he’s been ordained deacon since I was last there). Fr. Jacob Meyers does outstanding ministry in the inner city and has a parish that reflects the neighborhood around it. I recommend it to any who are visiting in Atlanta (it’s in the Grant Park area).

    May God bless the workers whom He has sent into the harvest and bring His people home.

  21. orthstitcher Avatar

    There has been an annual conference for quite a few years called something like “Ancient African Christianity”, or something to that effect. Generally it has been in Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, and other places in the Mid-West. Regardless of the name, it is an Orthodox conference and many of the attendees are African American. Fr. Moses Berry and others have been an important part of this.

  22. Terry Mitchell Avatar
    Terry Mitchell

    Thanks for your reply – I intend to keep looking into the Orthodox Church for my own soul’s sake and also to be an encouragement to my fellow African Americans as the occasion arises. I just wish the Orthodox Church was more visible to the population in general. The competition is fierce out there and the enemy is definitely not sleeping.

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    May God brighten the light for us all.

  24. nancy Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    I know that Christmas pageants have been a part of the American religious landscape for a long time. When I was a protestant, there was usually a major disagreement about who got to portray Mary or the angels, and I remember one instance when a family left that Church because their children did not have starring roles. I always thought that they were a venue for parents to take photos of their darlings, and I didn’t see that that the children got much out of the experience, but for the most part, they seemed harmless.

    Our Orthodox Church has put on little pageants in our Church basement, complete with many angels, camels, sheep and the manger scene, and the parents (more than the children) seem to love them. Last year, however, the pageant was moved to our Church sanctuary in front of the iconostasis. Do you think this space should be used for such events?

  25. nancy Avatar

    I forgot to say that I witnessed a lovely pageant in a Church Hall in a large parish staged by Ukranians celebrating Old Christmas. It was simply charming, and a tradition from their past that I felt should be cherished.

  26. Mark A Hershberger Avatar

    Re: African American Orthodox

    In my (Greek) church, we have a substantial (for Amish Country, at least) Eritrean population … perhaps 20-30 Eritreans show up regularly. I was amazed the first time I saw an Eritrean grandmother with a cross tattooed on her forehead.

    These people, like the parents and grandparents of the Greeks, are refugees, so they aren’t really focused on how they can bring Orthodoxy to African Americans who’ve been here for generations. Still, at least with an Eritrean church there would no color barrier.

  27. Theophan Avatar

    Indeed, it would be great to see our Orthodox churches and presbetery and heirarchs truly reflect the multi-racial/cultural America we live in now now.

    My, what a witness that would be to a society and “culture” dissillusioned by the hopes and dreams of movements that promised equality, freedom and respect. It will take a few, maybe even just one, that will unapologetically remain true to the Tradition and in so doing reach out actively to all stripes of Americans, unafraid of how that will effect how we do things now. I’ve shared my concerns with others and have been accused of being a racist. I don’t think our Churches are racisits, not at all. But, maybe we’re not actively making Orthodoxy available to everyone, especially people different from us. Maybe, we’ve been too passive when it comes to evangelization?

    I guess Orthodox evangelization within the American context is a whole ‘nother can of worms.

  28. randy Avatar

    some comments from the ignorant (converted a year ago), having to do with the distinction between small t traditions and big T traditions.

    *is it capital T tradition that one must not add a Psalm to the Divine Liturgy of St. Chrysostom? Evidently St. Chrysostom did not hold the Divine Liturgy never alterable, or he would never have altered it. Did one of the ecumenical councils command no alterations, ever?
    *is it a capital T tradition that one cannot worship the Lord with instruments — though this was done before Christ? When did non-Chalcedonians start using instruments, or did they simply never stop?
    *try to convince an ethnic parish to put an icon of St. Moses the Ethiopian on the iconostasis. Many Orthodox seem simply uninterested in obeying the Great Commission — and unfortunately it does not seem to be emphasized much. (Come on, services in _Greek_ in a tourist town in the USA??)
    *where does “sing a new song to the Lord” come in – NEVER in corporate worship? only every 1500 years?
    *there are some contemporary Christian songs (or Protestant hymns) which bring me to tears, and call me to holiness. Is that a sin? If such things are indeed helpful toward my salvation, why would this be prohibited? If beauty in music is bad, then we should revert to horrible-sounding tunes. If beauty is good, then why shouldn’t we increase the perceived beauty of the tunes to the US ear? If the choir is terribly weak, wouldn’t it be less distracting to have an instrument pick up some of the slack?
    *on a related topic, some icons are very distracting and off-putting to me because they appeal to a very different (ethnic?) taste. I am sure that this is merely due to my sinfulness; but I worry a lot about the huge cultural shock it is to become Orthodox. Let us lighten the burden if we can.

  29. brianglass Avatar

    I am an evangelical Christian investigating Orthodoxy with deep interest. Keep in mind that I am ignorant of much of Orthodoxy. I became interested in Orthodoxy (and Catholicism) because I feel a deep lack of depth and tradition in protestant Christianity. I feel we threw out a lot of important stuff in the reformation and I want to rediscover that.

    However, I also believe that it is natural and useful for there to always be a tension between the forces of conservatism and progressiveness. Change is necessary, but must always be tempered by a strong rooting in tradition. The difficulty lies in choosing where to draw the line.

    In reference to this discussion I decided I had better listen to some Orthodox music so I be at least a little bit informed. I do indeed like it. Much of what I heard is very reminiscent of Renaissance choral music epitomized by Palestrina. I have always liked this type of music. It transports one to another realm.

    That said…

    To deny that “mass” culture is American culture is to deny that America has culture.

    I actually know a few songwriters and musicians who play and write music that fits what might be considered the style of the “mass” culture music. While mass culture music is strictly limited to music that is published on a mass scale, many of the styles of music published in that way have penetrated down to a grass roots level. It is very much a part of the culture now regardless of how that came to be.

    On the other hand, much of what is “mass” produced first started at a grass roots level and rose to the top. It is now “mass” culture because people liked it well enough for it to be published on a mass scale. You might call it democracy of media.

    Certainly I agree that drive-through communion is blasphemy. It violates the very nature and definition of communion. But if a musician’s natural tendency is to write rock and roll music (since he grew up with that and loves to play and write it), then if he does so to the glory of God, what wrong is there in that? Is it not the attitude and intent of the author that makes the music an offering of praise to God?

    Suppose a rock (or rap or country) musician becomes an Orthodox convert in your parish. He is filled with thankfulness and wonder at what God has done in his life. In response he writes a song of praise (which coincidentally fits perfectly into the liturgy). Do you reject his music because it does not follow traditional forms?

  30. fatherstephen Avatar

    Icons are T tradition, and they shock because Christianity has moved too far away from them. There are many beautiful things within Protestantism and should be appreciated as such and may have their place. The liturgical life of the Church is largely fixed with some variability because it is also the doctrine of the Church. It exists primarily for the praise of God and though it is also part of the evangelism effort, it’s central purpose is not evangelism and should not be shaped with evangelism as the primary driving force. That indeed is evangelicalism and has not served them well.

    Patience is a T tradition and we need to learn patience and pray and trust God. It is certainly part of our American ethos to create plans and fix things to meet our goals. This part of the American ethos has its place within the Church but will meet problems when applied to the liturgy of the Church which it must. Look what Roman Catholics and Anglicans have done to their services with every good intention. And yet they are disasters and occasionally lapse into plain blasphemy (in the most extreme cases).

    The first task of the Church in evangelism is to become Orthodox, which is an inward matter. Acquire the Spirit of peace. Without the Spirit of Peace you will be of no use to anyone’s conversion. If we acquire the Spirit of Peace, a thousand souls around us will be saved. America needs Orthodox saints right now. If you care about the souls of America then set your heart on becoming an Orthodox saint. That is what we need. These other matters will be sorted out in time. To become overly vexed by them is, frankly, a distraction of the wicked one who loves nothing more than to vex us about such things. He hates everything we do. Be patient and forgive and pray. That will vex him! And it will help in the acquisition of the Spirit of Peace.

  31. Richard Barrett Avatar

    Randy: There are several places where a psalm may be sung in the Divine Liturgy. The first and second antiphons can be Ps. 102 and 145 respectively (although my impression based on parishes I’ve been to is that in this country, it’s done this way mostly in Slavic practice rather than Byzantine practice). The prokeimenon is a psalm text. The communion hymn is a psalm text. Psalm 33 is appointed to be sung at the end of the Liturgy (though again, I think the Slavs tend to do this more than the Arabs or Greeks). Implementation of this is going to vary from parish to parish.

    Liturgical change is by necessity slow. Lex orandi, lex credendi–if we’re changing how we pray, we need to make sure it isn’t changing how or what we believe. And then we need to make sure again. And then we need to make sure again. And then our grandchildren need to quadruple-check. And so do their grandchildren. Etc.

    Instruments are tricky. There are patristic writings a-plenty that say “don’t use them, and here’s why,” but obviously a lot of communities of Greeks and Arabs decided to adopt organs when they moved to this country. With the non-Chalcedonians, I think it’s true that you’re talking about a different cultural working out of the received Tradition. I suppose it’s possible that something similar could happen in the United States, but see the above comment about liturgical change being by necessity slow. There aren’t exactly tons of examples of widespread liturgical revision in the last century that haven’t had significantly awful consequences.

    In terms of the Great Commission–I don’t necessarily disagree with you, but one thing to recognize is that most historically Orthodox peoples have been in, at best, survival mode in recent centuries, and then in this country you’ve got a lot of upstart converts telling them how it is they’re “really” supposed to be Orthodox. Even for many converts, I think many have come to Orthodox Christianity so that they can rest in the fact that it isn’t going to change even if they don’t necessarily understand all of it, and associate evangelism with a battle mindset they’ve tried to leave behind. I’ve had many conversations with people where I’ve said that if we are what we claim we are, we should be shouting it from the rooftops, just to have the person look at me somewhat startled and say, “I couldn’t disagree with you more.” These things take time.

    “*where does “sing a new song to the Lord” come in – NEVER in corporate worship? only every 1500 years?”

    But that’s just it–we’re talking about *corporate* worship. The unit of measure of who’s worshipping is the congregation, not the individual. That said, as noted earlier, there are new things composed, but they serve specific functions–hymns commemorating new saints being one example. The Divine Liturgy isn’t “unalterable,” but it’s certainly not intended to just have things dropped in that weren’t meant to be there.

    There’s nothing sinful in a Protestant hymn calling you to holiness, nor is there anything to prohibit you from singing them. There’s not even anything to prevent you from getting a group of like-minded Orthodox together to sing them together as you wish. But the function of music and hymn texts in the Divine Liturgy is something very different from what those hymns were composed for. It’s not a judgment of quality; it’s a question of function. Those are two different things.

    With respect to icons–the only honest answer is that they aren’t intended to appeal to taste in the first place. They’re not decoration; they’re a depiction of heavenly reality.

    “Lightening the burden” sounds great, but it is a very tricky proposition in practice. I heard somebody once say that you can’t really talk about minimums in Orthodoxy, because minimums have a nasty tendency to become maximums. There are those who argue the Western Rite is the way to go to lighten the burden, and I don’t have a fundamental problem with the Western Rite, but I am concerned that it doesn’t just segregate the ethnicities even more. What we need is good catechesis.

    I think there’s a problem with overemphasizing the “Big T/little t tradition” distinction, too. What we don’t want is to make the Faith a menu of ethnic customs that are more or less negotiable, as opposed to the seamless garment that it actually is. Otherwise it becomes very easy to dismiss things we don’t like or things that make us uncomfortable as “little t tradition.”

    All that said, you’re by no means the only one who feels the way you do. To genuinely accomplish what you’re talking about, however, it’s going to take time–it’s going to have to be a slow, organic movement. It’s a good thing that Orthodoxy is as conservative as it is, because it means we can have faith that the Faith hasn’t changed, but that also means that we have to have patience and not expect the Church to adjust to *us*. We have to adjust to the Church.


  32. fatherstephen Avatar


    Your points are well made and I agree largely. Sorting out American culture is a little tricky and I probably painted with too large a brush. Actually my assistant priest writes contemporary Christian music and is Orthodox (of course) and produces CD’s which people buy and enjoy. They are not performed in Church and it’s not even in my authority to make that decision. The Church and its music are largely a matter of received tradition and things are added slowly and with approval.

    Our natural culture, I would suggest, has been highjacked by mass culture and marketed back to us, frequently to our detriment. I could give many examples. Church singers standing on stages, all with their microphones, etc. It’s as if everybody in America is star struck and wants the spotlight. It is a culture that gives us American idol and such nonsense. And it should be thoroughly resisted by the Church. It corrupts the soul to want to be a star.

    But Orthodoxy is a very deep, slow, very full inheritance which changes slowly and adds things slowly, but does change those things that can be changed when appropriate and adds stuff as well. But all that is needed for our salvation in Christ is present now. How well it does certain tasks will certainly have to improve in days to come. But for now, we still have all we need. This indeed is the true faith.

    Getting over the “designing” aspect of Protestantism is a healthy thing. I don’t think about “improving” my services to a large extrent. I think about serving the liturgy well, according to the TRadition and with proper attention and care. It is liberating.

    Whatever you do in looking at Orthodoxy – look for God above all. Until you find Him in Orthodoxy you haven’t seen the Church yet. When you do find Him, everything will be well.

  33. Richard Barrett Avatar

    brianglass: Actually, such a thing as you mention has happened. Chris Hillman, formerly of the Byrds and the Desert Rose Band, converted to Orthodoxy. He has described himself as “the only hillbilly tenor in the Orthodox church” (from http://www.sanluisobispo.com/ticket/story/181351.html). He had this to say about it (from http://www.chrishillman.com/reviews.htm):

    Triste: And if you don’t mind me asking, you describe yourself as a pretty ‘developed Christian’, I think, in one interview once. I suppose these songs are meaningful to you on a personal level – something deeper than just on a secular level. Of course, many people sing gospel songs, but obviously they have another deeper spiritual level, don’t they?

    Chris Hillman: Well, yeah. I’m a member of the Greek Orthodox faith, having been an Evangelical Christian back in the 80’s, and then I converted to the orthodox faith. Yeah, I’m very much devoted to that, but I don’t get in people’s face about it, or try and convert anybody! But it is my own personal belief with my family, and I sing in the orthodox choir every Sunday – sing tenor – which is really Byzantine. Part of the liturgy that they do every week, and so it’s a completely different kind of music to what I do on stage, which is bluegrass. And even when we do gospel stuff, it’s out of the old Baptist style, and Herb and I do old gospel songs in our show. It’s really completely different. And then on Sundays when I’m in town, when I’m home, I sing these very old Byzantine hymns that you would hear in a monastery. But actually, both types of music embrace each other, if you follow me. I mean I get a lot out of the church singing as well as the other. And actually I get wonderful ideas from singing in a completely different style.

    Triste: So at church then, you basically sing in the Eastern tradition, obviously. I presume the harmonies are different – different intervals or whatever?

    Chris Hillman: Yeah it is different. It uses different musical scales. But it is the Eastern Orthodox Church. As you would expect with the Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, and the Orthodox faith of course, coming out of Constantinople, Istanbul, it is very different you know. But that’s a whole other discussion!

  34. neil Avatar


    Deacon Apostolos Hill is actually Father Apostolos Hill (don’t know when that took place, I’m new in town). Just an FYI. A side note: to hear him sing in the cathedral is a beautiful thing.

  35. Christian Avatar

    Good afternoon.

    In all this discussion about Orthodox parish music, it’s helpful to remember that the Orthodox Church has a Western Rite both in the Antiochian Archdiocese and in ROCOR.

    My family attends Saint Marks in Denver. We have Anglican chant from the Saint Dunstan Psalter. We have hymns from the Saint Ambrose hymnbook. We have hymns from the 1940 hymnal of the Episcopal Church, we have Gregorian Chant, and we have an excellent choir and a fabulous pipe organ.

    Last Sunday, two of the hymns we sang were written by Charles Wesley. We’ve also sung hymns written by Isaac Watts. One hymn we sang had the same exact music the LCMS uses for “I was baptized happy day.”

    The Sunday before this, the teen Soyo group actually sang a chorus: “Father I Adore You” in rounds! I hadn’t sung that one since my days in the AMIA.

    Any convert from Lutheranism, Anglicanism or Methodism can quickly learn to feel quite at home in Western Rite Orthodoxy.

    This form of Orthodoxy provides a great place for converts who treasure the great hymns of the faith from their past Protestant culture. The Byzantine Rite is great, too, but it is difficult for some people to let go of the best things from their own heritage.

    Orthodoxy generously provides a way to retain the best things from our past christian experience while learning the necessary corrections to false doctrine our Orthodox Christian faith alone possesses.

    You can live in the Western Rite and listen to the music of the Eastern Rite through CD’s and the occasional visit to an Eastern Rite parish and truly have the best of both worlds!

  36. Richard Barrett Avatar

    Didn’t know that–God grant him many years! And I’m sure hearing him in the cathedral is wonderful.

  37. brianglass Avatar

    I need some clarification then.

    Is the one of the reasons contemporary music is not incorporated into the liturgy because we don’t know the long-term impact it would have on the liturgy?

    What I am hearing is that your main criticism of evangelicalism is in this post is not at its core the music, but the setting of the music. You are primarily concerned with the incorporation of contemporary music into a Sunday worship service.

    The core of your criticism then lies in the fact that evangelicals have combined their Sunday worship services with their evangelism and gotten the purpose of Sunday worship all mixed up. In that case would contemporary music be an appropriate evangelistic outreach outside of Sunday?

    But even further, I hear you saying that one of the main differences between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism is the difference between BEING and DOING. You are saying that it is more important to BE part of the body of Christ than to run around DOing things for the Body of Christ. Once the noun is there, the verb will take care of itself.

    So while there may be nothing wrong with contemporary Christian music and/or its use in evangelism, it is the wrong thing to be focused on.

    I do see God in Orthodoxy. I also see him in my current church. I see his hand in many many places. What I think you are saying is that I need to see the Orthodox Church as the embodiment of Christ in the world in order to truly see Orthodoxy. That part has not yet become clear to me. While the church is in fragments, I’m not sure I believe that any one particular fragment is the “correct” one.

  38. fatherstephen Avatar


    I think that your last statement is correct – that is indeed the teaching of the Orthodox Church – this is the Body of Christ – as He established it here on earth.

    However, that does not mean we are the only Christians. We would say that all Christians have some sort of relationship with the Church (Orthodox) whether they know it or not. There is simply no way to square denominationalism with the Scriptures or the Creeds. It is the product of sin and bad ecclesiology – perhaps necessitated to a degree given the nature of the situation which confronted Christians at various points. God is a good God and gracious and withholds His mercy from no one. But this does not make the multiplicity of “churches” correct or acceptable. They are there – but in some sort of “parachurch” existence.

    And on music – yes there can be contemporary music that is useful and beautiful and glorifies God – although it will likely not be a part of Orthodox worship for a variety of reasons.

    I do believe that Evangelicals have missed the heart and meaning of Church largely since their beginning and have had a huge impact even on mainline protestantism but that this effect has had many deleterious effects as well as beneficial.

    God will use whatever we give Him for the salvation of all. The truth of Orthodoxy and the Orthodox Church is something to consider – but not something to argue about or figure out. If it’s true, it will be clear in time. If not, then the Orthodox are in some very serious error.

  39. Richard Barrett Avatar

    One other thought–Jeremiah 6:16:

    “This is what the LORD says:
    “Stand at the crossroads and look;
    ask for the ancient paths,
    ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
    and you will find rest for your souls.”

    (Can’t take credit for coming up with this one on my own; it came up tonight during a guest lecture at our parish’s catechism class. But it’s a very worthwhile thought nonetheless.)

  40. David Avatar

    I take is as a good thing when I read a post by Father Stephen and I jump ahead in his thinking almost phrase for phrase hearing the words before I read them.

    I believe this is a natural consequence of my computer mouse’s tendency to take me here (I have tried to control my access through an RSS reader, but I end up reading on the page anyway since often the best of Fr Stephen is in the dialog of comments) and Fr Stephen being gifted.

    I sometimes wonder if God showers such men in all things, or whether I should be praying for Fr Stephen’s wife and children, lest God’s generosity through him, to us, some how impoverish them. Or maybe they sit around the living room saying “What a blessing to have the full of him in our home!”

  41. Theophan Avatar

    The Worship of the Church is what drew me in. Not so much the music, per se, but the content, meat, if you will, of the services and hymnography. In my 6 years of being Orthodox I have realized one thing: I do not need to attend a seperate, para church organization to learn about the faith, the bible or even Church history. It is all there in the words of the hymns. Its not spoon fed to you, not by a long shot. You have to be willing to be quiet, still, patient, very patient and come back week after week, feast after feast, fast after fast, year after year and slowly one begins to acquire the mind of the Church. It is in the worship of the Church where true theology is learned. True theology is the knowledge of God, and more precisely the all-consuming love of God. In the Orthodox Worship one learns about God, his love, compassion, patience, longsuffering, and tenderness. I think the goal of our worship is for us to fall in love with God. Elder Porpyrios has written beautifully about this subject, that is, how the cannons, hymns and services of the Church help to purify the heart and enkindle the love of God in our hearts.

    In response to a comment above, my opinion as to why we don’t have “contemporary” worship in our Church is because that kind of worship is not catholic. Its only a hunch, but I would bet on it that if we started including “contemporary” worship in our services, it would not catch on. Why? Well, “contemporary” worship appeals to a narrow portion of the population. In my opinion it speaks only to certain people because of certain socio-economic, ethnic, generational aspects of our humanity, for example: we’re 21st century 20 somethings, college graduates, Anglo, middle class, etc. Again, contemporary is not catholic.

    In my opinion Orthodox worship is a catholic worship because it appeals speaks to us, not because we’re white, 20 somthing, middle class, etc., etc., but because it cuts through all that which makes us different and touches our humanity, particularly through its clear, unambiguous message. It is also catholic because it is what unites us, Orthodox to the Orthodox all over the world and not only those who are living, but the many millions if not billions who have gone before us. For me that is a real manifestation of the shared life in Christ we share with our bretheren. It is through the worship that we remain whole, we remain catholic. The world will look at us and say we’re fragmented, but from my personal experience I can say that it doesn’t matter how bitter the jurisdictional, ecclesiastical fighting gets, we still share a common life, centered around the worship of the God-Man Jesus Christ and we proclaim a common faith in and through our worship and we all partake of the same cup and same loaf.

  42. Irenaeus Avatar

    Re: African American Orthodox

    Here is a parish (belonging to the Serbian Orthodox Diocese) with a strong focus on African American Orthodoxy:

  43. fatherstephen Avatar


    I’m sure my family may sit with me with the word “full” on their mind, but probably in a different sentence. My wife, though, reads my blog faithfully. Actually, my family is the delight of my life and they “feed” me. And, trust me, I credit my wife for it. She is a wonderful woman of prayer who has prayed for me, tolerated me, and forgiven me much in our lives together.

    Your words brought great laughter (joy) to us both this morning! Thanks! 🙂

  44. Mary Lowell Avatar


    To your point: “ … I have realized one thing: I do not need to attend a separate, para church organization to learn about the faith, the bible or even Church history. It is all there in the words of the hymns. Its not spoon fed to you, not by a long shot. You have to be willing to be quiet, still, patient, very patient and come back week after week, feast after feast, fast after fast, year after year and slowly one begins to acquire the mind of the Church. It is in the worship of the Church where true theology is learned.”

    I have a story, often told by my friend Mary Bradshaw, wife of Philosopher David Bradshaw, that I don’t think she will mind me retelling here, even if I get some details wrong.

    When her parents, the scholars Dr. John and Felicity Allen, reared Episcopalians, were going through the process of converting to Orthodoxy back in the sixties, when Mary was a child, they asked the priest what they should be studying to “become Orthodox.” The priest of that all Greek parish in Alabama and all “Greek spoken here” Liturgy, looked perplexed.

    “Oh?” he finally said, not separating the process of “becoming” from “being,” not recognizing the desire to leave denominationalism for True Worship as qualifying as “becoming,” not entertaining that “study” would make one Orthodox, went on to say, “It takes a life time to become Orthodox.” Here too, the real marvel of that statement is that the Allen’s understood the priest to be including himself in the equation.

    This, of course, does not go against the benefits of private reading on the lives of saints, Church History and, My Goodness, this wonderful Blog, where Fr. Stephen so wisely interacts with all of us on our lifetime way toward “becoming” united to the God-Man Jesus Christ!

  45. Anna Avatar


    About your question about a musician who becomes Orthodox and writes a praise song–can it be used in liturgy?

    In the evangelical churches I attended before becoming Orthodox, I was troubled that we would be VERY careful about who was allowed to speak from the pulpit, but that we would give free reign to anyone who could play the guitar–to choose songs, write songs, and exhort us to worship. The musicians didn’t need to have theological training, nor did they have many years of experience as Christian adults.

    I am continually amazed at the poetry and theology of the hymns we use in Orthodox worship!

  46. Duke Avatar

    FWIW, my two cents–I’ve been a professional musician most of my life (even have a for-real degree in music!) and before converting to Orthodoxy was employed as a music director in a church. The focus of the music was to “attract” people so that they would be exposed to the preaching, really. It sounds sort of crass to put it that way, but that’s ultimately what its purpose was. I noticed that there was never a single style that everyone could rally around–no-one really wanted to do hymns, because although theologically meaty, they were musically dull, the Gaither and Maranatha stuff was kinda cheesy, and the new praise & worship stuff was too rock.

    IOW, the music itself is disposable, it isn’t able to transcend its particular decade, and that’s where the real problem lies. In an effort to “grow” the church, to “attract” the young folks, music styles change to fit what’s currently “hip,” and what was previously “in” is now “out.” I daresay that kind of thinking then affects what is taught in that church.

    Incidentally, when I converted to Orthodoxy, I killed my career. Unlike a Protestant pastor who can become a priest, a Protestant music director won’t find employment in the Orthodox church. Yet I still do not have any inclination to re-do the liturgy or “update” the Orthodox hymns with strummed guitar or sing “Our God Is An Awesome God” somewhere in the Liturgy.

  47. Mary Lowell Avatar

    Good point, Anna!

    The great hymnologists of Orthodoxy are saints and theologians, not contemporary popularists musicians of whatever century. The theology of the Orthodox Church is embedded in her hymnography, and church singing is the primary instrument of its preaching, catechesis and evangelism. Sermons, Bible studies and church schools support spiritual formation, but this is not how the Church draws near to the soul; it is through the depth of her poetry, chanted and sung. In the tradition of God’s greatest poet, King David, the liturgical poets of the Orthodox Church have produced works that express the fullness of the Christian revelation. Among the best known hymnographers are Sts. James, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Ephraim the Syrian, Andrew of Crete, John Damascene and Romanos the Melodist. Church composers and musicians throughout the centuries have continuously molded and remolded the texts of these poet-theologians into aural icons that awaken our spiritual senses to receive understanding. There is much room here for musical creativity and adaptation to the present ear. But it would be unthinkable for Orthodoxy to adopt pop-jingles to which to sway and enter emotional states that only have ends in themselves. This is one of the major reasons instruments are not used in Orthodox worship. Beat without meaning, sound without imparting life-saving teaching in excruciatingly well chosen words will never have place in Orthodox worship. God help us and save us from all else!

  48. Richard Barrett Avatar

    It occurs to me–wouldn’t Arius be an example of somebody who did adopt what amounted to pop jingles in writing his hymnody? Not exactly sure that’s the model we want to emulate…

  49. Mary Lowell Avatar

    Father, Bless,

    I’m wondering if you would address the importance of the cleros as a teaching ministry and not a stage for performers. I know in many parishes necessary training may not be available to teach and learn chant and often there is the temptation to “just wing it.” But still there ought to be order, humility and solemnity in approaching the cleros, since it is a dangerous cross to impart the words of Orthodox theology worthily with clarity and beauty.

    Your thoughts …

  50. fatherstephen Avatar


    I would have to leave such teaching to other parish priests (within their own parishes), lest I trespass on their teaching authority.

  51. Mary Lowell Avatar

    Thank you, Father. I understand. I wasn’t thinking parochially but globally about the sanctity of the cleros, but your point is well taken and received.

    God Bless your wisdom on this

  52. […] Mission, enculturation, and niche marketing by Father Stephen. […]

  53. […] is an Orthodox priest from Tennessee. The above quote is from a comment he made on a post on Mission and Worship in America. While I don’t agree with everything he says on the subject of musical styles (he is from […]

  54. […] in one of the comments sections has been quoted far and wide in the world of blogdom: “There’s something wrong with a nation where people don’t sing and dance.” The Orthodox mission in America will show signs of how deeply it has taken root as it […]

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  1. As a total aside: Henry Adams practically invented Social History with his efforts almost 200 years ago. A magnificent book…

  2. Sorry for typos. Meant to say nothing pollutes more than warfare, etc , and don’t want to tread over the…

  3. Regarding “green” policies and the discussion here, I want to add that nothing polltes more han warfare, weapons, and to…

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